by Corinne Simon-Duneau
Have you ever seen one of those cheap Kung Fu movies dubbed in English where the actor has closed his mouth and the dialogue continues or his lips are still moving and you hear nothing? During all the years I was working at what they grandly but justifiably called “dialogue adaptation,” we all strove to never let that happen. Of course you couldn’t translate literally, otherwise the French version of the film would emulate that Kung Fu movie. Not doing one’s job properly could have some dire side effects, one of which was “lip flap.”
Lip flap is the sin of all sins, committed for the sake of lip-synching. It grates on discerning ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. The sentence drags on, the words become elastic, they are pulled and compressed and pulled again, with grunts, gasps, throat scratching, thoughtful hesitancies and added interjections, none of which existed in the original text. Lip flap is just lazy filling. Then the elastic snaps and it all suddenly accelerates with no warning, pinning you to your seat.
This makes the characters sound either moronic or manic, and highly unnatural. This, unfortunately, is the destiny of most dubbed movies and TV series. It might sound like this: “Weeeell, hmhm, err, my, ahemm, deeeeaaar Julie, why don’t we haaave… aha, yes, hum, adrinkortwoatthehotelbar… Yyyyes hm?” This is one reason people dislike dubbed movies and prefer subtitles. In Europe, tastes are divided. About half the European countries, mostly those of romance languages (except Portuguese), prefer to have their films dubbed rather than subtitled.
We shouldn’t complain though: In Eastern Europe (the Baltic states, Poland, Russia…) films are entirely dubbed by one single man who provides all the characters’ voices—men, women, children. Worse, he merely reads the script and the sound of his voice just follows behind that of the original version’s actor, slightly overlapping it. In Poland, he’s called the “lektor.”
So how do you solve the problem of writing synchronized dialogue when sounds, and therefore the use of the mouth, the vocal cords, the tongue, and even the glottis, differ widely from one language to another? You painstakingly solve these problems, by spending as much as one hour per minute of film to get the dialogue right, making sure it sounds natural, and that it flows and conveys the original concept and mood. The most challenging part is being faithful to its humor while converting it into the humor of your own language, and country. If you’re seasoned and practiced, you know when the image is going too fast for the eye to see that your vowel jumped over closed lips or your consonant over a gaping mouth, skipping the breath mid sentence; and when you get the rhythm right, the voice actor will glide seamlessly over your text like a champion snowboarder over a bumpy slope. It can be exhilarating to watch. That’s when you know you’ve triumphed; you’re the quintessential illusionist.
This was “the old way”, at least when I lived and worked in Paris. I think I was only defeated once, and had to resort to the infamous lip-flap, hoping none of my colleagues would ever find out.
Horrified, I watched a close-up of the actress, her luscious lips parting around a large pink tongue that stuck out half-way to her chin, clutched between shiny white teeth, staying put all through
a heart-felt and lingering “Thank you!” You couldn’t miss that tongue, it was impossible to ignore, it didn’t budge, and the “Thhhhh” of “Thank” lasted forever.
Then the large lips puckered in a coy “Yooooo.”
So how did I handle that one?
There’s no “Th” sound in French where you stick your tongue out; and “Thank you,” seen on a face that is filling a 65 by 30 feet screen would certainly look nothing like “Merci.” In a last, desperate attempt, it became “Ça alors!” the French equivalent of “Good heavens,” but said by someone who has a lisp. Then I inserted her insistent gratitude into the next sentence. That was a serious bending of the rules, but what’s an adapter to do? I didn’t go to the studio when the actors recorded it, so I don’t know if it flew. I think I called in sick that day.
So what was “the old way?”
My first experience with dubbing was when I met my friend Henry at work before going out to lunch. When I got to the studio, I was directed to a tiny room. There he was, bent over a massive, noisy, machine-like table, in the dark. He was writing on what looked like a milky, transparent band sitting on a strip of light. He pushed a lever, the transparent tape moved, and so did the image on the screen. He stopped it, wrote again, the dim light under the band reflecting on his mouth and nose. Then he put his pencil down and greeted me.
We went to a restaurant nearby and although Henry was his usual entertaining self, I couldn’t stop thinking of that machine and how it worked. I was already a translator and a journalist at the time, so I’d been using PCs for at least a couple of years, starting with the IBM PC in 1981. But I’d never seen anything like this enormous contraption that looked like it weighed half a ton, complete with science-fiction gears, cogs, wheels and buttons. I found the process fascinating and I kept asking questions. So much so that after lunch, he invited me to go back to the studio and to sit next to him as he worked.
He showed me how the band was fed from a reel under the table on his left, stretched across the whole length of the table, then disappeared down a slot to wind around another reel. The band was called a “rhythmo band,”or “mother band” and the original text in English had been hand-written on it, with a pencil, exactly as the character said it. The written dialogue was moving in sync with the video, along with all the screams, the oohs the aahs and the yeehas. So “Nooooooo!” would be an “n” and one “o” stretched over several inches of the band, like a piece of dough in the hands of the pizza maker. “Hmmm” was an “H” and one long “m.”
That day, Henry was working on a Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoon, with Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. He popped in the cassette and listened to a couple of scenes, then paused it. He started writing his French dialogue above the English, using it as a template. He wrote, erased, rewound the video, rewrote, erased again, on and on. I said nothing, not wanting to disturb him.
After about twenty minutes, he smiled and looked at me. “Check this out,” he said. He turned off the sound and read his text. It was as if the characters were lip-syncing him! I nearly fell off my stool I was laughing so hard, and what he had written had nothing to do with the English original version. But if he had just translated it, no one in France would have been amused. He was a master at this, I came to find out later. Moreover, the clients and the audience loved what he did, because he was really, genuinely funny.
Today I’m not sure this would be acceptable. But back then, with most cartoons and TV series at least, the adaptor was God. He could change what the original actors said if it was incomprehensible, or too repetitive, or if the jokes didn’t translate. Feature films were another thing: you stuck to the script as much as possible.
Much later, I got to work on MASH with a team. We had a moral dilemma: we all fell in love with the series, but sadly, we often had to change the text; if we had translated it as it was, the French audience wouldn’t have gotten the humor of it, let alone understood what it referred to. Since we were working on different episodes, we had to compare our work, if only for consistency. But more importantly, we decided to check each other’s dialogues. If the others didn’t laugh out loud, you had to rewrite; they were a tough audience. We tried to be as true to the original as possible—after all, this was a legendary show, and maybe we could educate the French about it. We sometimes disagreed on how to do this, but mostly we had fits of belly-aching, uncontrollable giggles. I wonder sometimes if our version still exists, somewhere in the French television archives.
But back to when I began: Weary of endlessly boring technical translation, I ended up joining the studio Henry worked at. My first taste of dialogue adaptation was with, of all series, The Dukes of Hazard. (Just as a side note, that the car’s name was General Lee and the presence of the confederate flag on its roof totally escaped me at the time.)
I was assigned one of the oldest machines on the lot, with a 16 mm reel to reel system; I guess it was their version of boot camp. The first day, I stood next to the machine, trying to figure it out, and I touched what happened to be a live wire underneath the table. My brain shook in my skull like a ball in a rattle, and I was ejected half-way across the room. A little dazed, I sat down to what would prove to be snail-paced work. I endlessly poured over dictionaries and thesauruses, muttering the lines, opening and closing my lips like a koi fish gasping for air, in search of the perfect synchronization; I turned those pebbles in my mouth until they smoothed out, devoid of tongue-trippers. At least, I told myself, my brief stint as a theater actress hadn’t been completely in vain.
It took several weeks of grueling, brain-racking practice to get to a point where I relaxed enough to make progress. I stopped being a slave to syllables. All I had to do was hear the beat, sound French, have fun and to hell with perfect lipsync. Finally, I could work without sweating blood. I even came to enjoy working on Family Ties, Growing Pains or The Young and the Restless—much to the disgust of my loved ones, who pursued more intellectually rich and challenging occupations.
Six months and a fair amount of completed jobs later, I graduated. I was called in for a session at the recording studio, in the industrial suburbs north of Paris. It was in an old, rather decrepit
building, dating back to the early 1900s. You could sense the ghosts of the early days of cinema roaming in the crumbling hallways and behind moldy drapes. The recording room was a former movie stage—a large, warehouse-like space with metal beams lost in the darkness above and a gigantic screen up front; no padded walls, no sound-proofing. The actors were already there, standing in front of a bunch of microphones, chatting, and smoking (yes, this was Paris in the ‘80s). They all looked at me as I arrived. I waved, nervous, and sat on a side bench. Then the director arrived. We waited for a truck to go by, the sound engineers got going and suddenly, the film started and the strip with my hand-written dialogue appeared on the bottom of the screen.
My heart beat a hundred miles an hour, I was shaking. How would “my work” be received? Would they realize the pain and suffering it took to come up with those two ground-breaking puns? Would they reject the miracles I pulled off to solve impossible challenges? The main actor started reading the text as it rolled, like a man wolfing down a meal lovingly prepared for him, not paying attention to what he was gobbling down. One after the other, they all sounded like burned-out workers on the assembly-line. I was stunned. Why was the director not directing? Then I saw he was as bored as the rest of them. Granted, this was a sappy ‘60s romantic comedy. Still, I was mortified.
Later on, I would look back at that first session with nostalgia. As I got to know the actors, the recording sessions grew more turbulent. They would roast me, and scream at me, “I can’t say that crap, for Pete’s sake!” “You like to make me stumble?” So I had to produce replacement dialogue on the spot, praying for inspiration. I always made it though; I had to.
There were two kinds of actors: The well-known ones were the voices of famous foreign actors in prestigious feature films, and the others worked on old Westerns, B movies and lesser TV series.
The latter were, for the most part, older actors who’d never made it and had lost their spark. They just clocked in, showed up for work and didn’t put much soul into their part. They’d been doing this for too long and had bad habits—lip flaps galore, and that recognizable voice-over tone, where you distinctly heard them working the abs to get it out before running out of air. The synchronization, on the other hand, was near perfect; thanks to our rhythmo bands, of course.
When writing the dialogues, alone in the dark, we’d poured our hearts into our characters, acted their roles aloud, laughed, cried and snapped with them; yes, even with mustachioed Victor or the everlasting Katherine Chancellor. So when our work was slaughtered on that recording stage, we felt betrayed; we knew the parts so well, we were certain we could outperform those hams.
Except that once in front of the microphone, I doubt we would have done a better job; because it took some really good actors to pull it off. Patrick Floersheim was one of them, a genius in his own right, the finest voice actor I’ve ever heard. He was the voice of Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Ed Harris. And he will be remembered forever for his absolutely dazzling rendition of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, one of the most difficult challenges in dubbing history. But let’s not forget the other genius in this story: The person who wrote the brilliant text adapted for the role in French. He remains unknown to this day.
I’ve been working mainly on subtitles since I moved to the US in 1991, but I remember those days fondly. I miss the big old machines and the rhythmo band, the art of it. The technique was indeed primitive, but when well done, it produced great results. Dubbing is still more expensive to produce than subtitles, and with the growing demand for content localization with TV, videos, digital channels and Internet streaming, talent is becoming scarce and budgets are tightening. So the “old way” may be definitely gone, for good.